For a number of years after it achieved independence, Sri Lanka was viewed as the most promising country in South Asia. It had the highest literacy rate, the highest GNP per capita and was the most favorable destination in the region for tourists and investors alike. That all ended with an upsurge of ethnic unrest in 1977 involving the majority Sinhalese and the 3.2 million-strong Tamil minority, who clamored for a separate “Eelam” (independent country) or “Tamil homeland” in the north. The insurgency led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam that started in 1983 is now 17 years old, has claimed nearly 63,000 lives and has destroyed hopes for the achievement of a peaceful Sri Lanka.
It seems ironic that South Asian states like Bangladesh and India are sending peacekeeping forces to Sierra Leone in the international struggle against rebels there, but apparently feel unable to help their own neighbor preserve its integrity against domestic insurgents.
In the wake of the LTTE’s recent stunning successes, Colombo made overtures to India to act as a go-between and/or to render support to help overcome the current situation. But India, the region’s pre-eminent power, has no desire to be drawn into Sri Lanka’s predicament, having already tried diverse strategies in Sri Lanka’s theater of conflict. Toward the beginning of the insurgency, the Tamils were known to have benefited from India’s strategy of indirection, receiving arms and sanctuary. When that policy was reversed in 1987, following the achievement of an understanding with Colombo, Delhi tried to serve as a go-between, or a kind of peacekeeper, to help contain the conflict. India’s reversal enraged the LTTE and it targeted Indian forces: Nearly 1,500 of them died and over 3,000 were wounded. The LTTE is also blamed for the assassination of former Indian Premier Rajiv Gandhi, who reached the Indo-Sri Lankan understanding in 1987.
In response to Colombo’s recent plea for help, India’s coalition government has offered to play only a “humanitarian role,” refusing to act as a mediator unless both sides in the conflict ask it to do so. This is inconceivable, given the zero-sum outlook of the two sides to the conflict. India’s reluctance to be drawn back into Sri Lanka may stem from bitter memories of its previous involvement.
India has its own domestic reasons not to enter the fray against the LTTE. The coalition government has partners from the southern state of Tamil Nadu — Dravida Munnera Kazagham, Marumalarchi Dravida Kazhagham and Pattali Makkai Katchi — and all are known supporters of Tamil Eelam. The Shiv Sena, a key ally of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, also openly espouses the LTTE’s cause.
India faces another dilemma, too. Continuing violence in Jaffna will add to the more than 100,000 Tamil refugees who have already found shelter in Tamil Nadu. Apart from the short-term impact on the Indian economy, the political ramifications are incalculable. A Tamil Eelam in the northern quarter of Sri Lanka could deal a fatal blow to India’s own notion of democratic, multiethnic pluralism. Since a Tamil Eelam would be resource-poor, it would not be a viable independent entity and would likely spur demands for a Greater Eelam, a Tamil nationalist volcano-in-waiting for India. There was a secessionist movement in Tamil Nadu in the 1960s, and a Tamil Eelam centered on Jaffna could later serve as a base for operations against Indian security forces.
In the wake of the recent LTTE offensive, Sri Lanka has already proved to be fragile. The insurgency could have been nipped in the bud by a generous offer of democratic decentralization that guaranteed justice and cultural autonomy to the country’s minorities. Such prescriptions have, however, long been overtaken by events.
Norway has assumed the role of peace intermediary, but it has little leverage or knowledge of the political terrain. As a go-between, it might unknowingly have contributed to an acceleration the violence: In negotiations, contending sides prefer to bargain from a position of strength. This provides incentives for an intensification of the struggle, and the intermediary has no carrots or sticks to use. South Asia’s destiny may not be better secured by creating more “homelands” — a course that has been tried without success in attempts to solve India’s problems — but by ensuring a fairer socioeconomic deal for all communities in the current entities.
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